Director Ryan Coogler Says 'Black Panther' Brought Him Closer To His Roots

Feb 15, 2018
Originally published on February 20, 2018 2:11 pm

As a kid in Oakland, Calif., Ryan Coogler hung out at a comic book shop near his school, reading about superheroes who looked nothing like him.

"As I got older, I wanted to find a comic book character that looked like me and not just one that was on the sidelines," Coogler says. "And I walk in and ask the guy at the desk that day, and say, 'Hey man, you got any comic books here about black people, you know, like with a black superhero?' And he was like, 'Oh, yeah, as a matter of fact, we got this one.'"

That guy handed him a copy of Black Panther. And today, Coogler is the director of the Marvel movie adaptation about T'Challa — the king of fictional African nation Wakanda — who dons a super-science-powered suit to protect his people.

This superhero movie is actually a new challenge for Coogler, who's only 31 years old. He got a ton of praise for his first film, Fruitvale Station, about an unarmed black man killed by a transit cop in Coogler's hometown of Oakland. Then, he directed Creed, the latest Rocky movie — and now, Black Panther, which many hope will be a cultural turning point.

And Coogler says he's feeling the pressure of those expectations. But, he adds, "for me, the pressure's always been there, 'cause I'm in a career that's unexpected, in terms of where I'm from and what I look like, you know, how old I am. So I'll always feel pressure. I'll always feel like I'm up against odds that are kind of insurmountable and, 'Man, if I don't get this right, I might not ever work in this town again.' But you kind of got to tune that stuff out."


Interview Highlights

On travelling to Africa to research the film

For me, it was about this question of "What does it mean to be African?" It was a question I couldn't answer. When I was taking this project, it was a question I needed to answer about myself, you know, which is the personal connection that I'm talking about. And it's a question that sounds specific, but it's actually universal for a lot of reasons. ... I mean if you ask yourself, "Now what does it mean to be Ukrainian?" or "What does it mean to be Eurasian?" it's a deep question, right, if you think about it. It's not a question you can answer with one word. But it's a question you can spend your life trying to figure out, and have fun doing it, I truly believe.

On the importance of Black Panther having his own movie

For one, like, this medium of superhero films and this blockbuster medium, it's just myth-making but on terms that are current. That's why these movies make a lot money. That's why people talk about them, you know what I mean, people dress up as them.

You look at any society in any period of time, they had their version of how they did their myth-making. Whether it was vaudeville, whether it was plays, whether it was on the plains of Africa ... and it was griots, you know, beating the drum and telling stories. That was their version of myth-making. Right now, it's these big, huge, large-canvas films that you go see in IMAX, that you go see in 3-D.

And there's a massive audience — not just of people of color but everybody — who wants to see different perspectives in this myth-making. They want to see something fresh, they want to see something new, but also feels very real. You walk around in this world, and you see people who look like me — all the time. I'm from the Bay Area man, where we've got a very successful basketball team right now. The Golden State Warriors run out there, run up and down the court, [and] it's a bunch of black dudes. But everybody in the stadium — even though it's in Oakland — there's very few black people in that stadium. But everybody's wearing they jerseys and experiencing the emotions that they feel. You know, when Steph Curry hits a shot, it's a little white kid or a little Asian kid in there that feel like they just made the shot.

On the state of representation in entertainment

I mean, there was a time in sports when black people weren't allowed to play on professional teams, you know what I mean. You go down the line in every sport, there was a time when it was like a crazy idea to let a black person run out there and put a jersey on. You know, it was a time when professional teams would say, "We won't make any money if we put a black person out there." You know, it took that one to happen and then they looked around and was like, "Wait, we're making more money — we gotta do this more. Oh yeah, people will cheer for a person who doesn't look like them." I mean, I know I watched superhero movies and did all the time.

On the creation of Wakanda

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who invented the character and invented Wakanda, they were two Jewish-American artists who were in the States — in New York — and pulling from the things that they were seeing around them to make these stories. I've met Stan Lee, and I know that he was tapping into the zeitgeist, purposefully, of what he saw African-Americans and people all over the world going through. He kind of came up with this pulpy concept, and ... when you really think about it, man, it is something that's based on circumstance. Like it's fiction, that has base in reality. Africa's a continent that's known for its resources, you know. It's very rich in terms of any kind of resource that you can get out of the ground that has value. You're going to find it in abundance somewhere on that continent, whether it's oil, whether it's rubber, whether it's gems or precious metals.

It led to colonization and exploitation. It led to borders being drawn, not by the people who are from there, you know. And it led to the mental horrors of colonization, which comes with being told that you're less than, and not worthy of, and losing your language — losing your heritage, and the cousin of colonization, which is a very scary relative of it, is the theft of bodies, is what happened to my ancestors.

That said, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, they were aware of all these things. And they tapped into something when they said "Man, what if that never happened to a place? What if a place had something really cool, had a cool mineral, you know, had a coltan, had a gold, had a diamond and they never were conquered and they found a way to manipulate it, and stay separate from the world and grow and become great?" And ... found a way to maintain that, what kind of conflict would that bring about? You know, it was Afro-futurism. It was all these great things that amazing writers have built on, and built on, and built on, in the 60 years since they did that.

On filming Black Panther from the perspective of Wakandans

I think perspective is everything — perspective and proximity to whose story you're watching, it's one of the gifts that cinema has. Like for me, I never left the country until I made a film that got into a festival that was outside the country. How I used to travel was through watching movies, and I like the movies that put me right on the ground. I like City of God, I like Un Prophète, you know, these films that put you like right in the zone. You're experiencing it with the people who it's about.

On whether he feels like he can go back to making smaller, indie films after Black Panther

Yeah, I mean I think intimacy can be achieved in a film on any budget. I feel, personally, like I have some of my most intimate scenes I've ever made in this movie. You know, I just want to make films that resonate with me, that are interesting to me, that deal with themes that I'm passionate about.

Like, I mean this movie brought me closer to my roots. This movie took me to the continent of Africa, which is somewhere I wanted to go since my mom and dad sat me down and told me I was black, you know what I mean? So I hope to make movies that'll challenge me as an artist and as a person. That's really what I hope to do.

Justin Richmond and Shannon Rhoades produced and edited this interview. Sydnee Monday and Petra Mayer adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

As a kid in Oakland, Calif., Ryan Coogler hung out at a comic book shop near his school, reading about superheroes who looked nothing like him.

RYAN COOGLER: As I got older, I wanted to find, like, a comic book character that looked like me and not just one that was, like, on the sidelines, you know. I walked in and asked the guy at the desk that day and said - hey, man, you got any comic books in here, like, with - about black people - you know, like with a black superhero? He was like, oh, yeah. As a matter of fact, you know, we got this one.

GREENE: That guy handed him a copy of "Black Panther." And that kid - well, today he is the director of the blockbuster "Black Panther." It's the Marvel movie adaptation about T'Challa, the king of a fictional African nation Wakanda. He dons this virtually indestructible suit to protect his people.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK PANTHER")

LETITIA WRIGHT: (As Shuri) Hey, look at your suit. You've been taking bullets, charging it up with kinetic energy.

CHADWICK BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) Pull around the truck.

GREENE: I love the action.

So this superhero movie - it's actually a new challenge for Ryan Coogler, who is only 31. He got a ton of praise for his first film, "Fruitvale Station." That was about an unarmed black man killed by a transit cop in Coogler's hometown of Oakland. Then he directed "Creed," the latest "Rocky" movie and now "Black Panther," which many are hoping will be a cultural turning point.

On Twitter, Brooklyn Dad Defiant wrote, quote, "when I was a kid, movies and TV shows were full of black characters that were pimps, drug dealers and slaves. T'Challa is a king, a genius and a bad ass superhero."

We met Ryan Coogler in a Beverly Hills hotel where the studio was holding a massive press event for the film. And I asked him if he is feeling the pressure of this moment.

COOGLER: I mean, yeah, the pressure's there. You know, you'll hear things like - man, if this doesn't work. For me, the pressure has always been there. Like, 'cause I'm in a career that is unexpected in terms of where I'm from and what I look like, how old I am - so I always feel pressure. I always feel like I'm up against odds that are kind of unsurmountable and - man, if I don't get this right, I might not ever work in this town again.

GREENE: But getting it right is not just about ticket sales. Coogler said he's hoping people will find deeper meaning in this movie, just like he did traveling to Africa to research the story of "Black Panther."

You went to the continent for this project. I mean, what does that tell us about what you were trying to really grapple with and explore with this film?

COOGLER: Yeah. I mean, for me, it was about this question of - what does it mean to be African? It's a question of - what's your ethnic heritage, if you don't mind me asking?

GREENE: Latvian, Russian, Ukrainian.

COOGLER: Yeah. It's a lot of rich history there in those countries. But I mean, if you ask yourself - now, what does it means to be Ukrainian? You know what I mean? Or what does it mean to be from Eurasia? You know, like, it's a deep question - right? - if you think about it.

GREENE: Yeah.

COOGLER: You know what I'm saying? And it's not a question you can answer with one word. But it's a question that you can spend your life trying to figure out, you know, and have fun doing it, I truly believe.

GREENE: Yeah. I've gone to some of those most places and feel this connection that's...

COOGLER: Isn't it a strange feeling...

GREENE: It is a strange feeling.

COOGLER: ...Like the connection that you feel when you go to, like, the land of your ancestors? It's amazing.

GREENE: When I was getting ready to talk to you, I read a piece about what a big deal this character was. And, you know, that was 1966 when it first came out. And what does it say that it still feels like a big deal decades and decades later that we have a blockbuster movie with, you know, a black lead character?

COOGLER: For one, like, this medium of superhero films and this blockbuster medium is just mythmaking, you know, like, but on the terms that are current. That's why these movies make a lot of money. That's why people talk about them. You know what I mean? People dress up as them.

And there's a massive audience, not just of people of color but everybody who wants to see different perspectives in this mythmaking. They want to see something fresh - they want to see something new but also feels very real. You know what I mean?

You walk around in this world, and you see people that look like me all the time. I'm from the Bay Area, man, where we got a very successful basketball team right now. You know, the Golden State Warriors run out there - run up and down the court - it's a bunch of black dudes. But everybody in the stadium, man, it's very - you know, it's in Oakland. It's very few black people in that stadium.

But everybody's wearing their jerseys and experiencing the emotions that they feel. You know, when Steph Curry hits a shot, you know, it's a little white kid or a little Asian kid in there who feels like they just made the shot. You know what I mean? If Steph Curry gets hurt, they'll cry. You know what I mean?

GREENE: But that's sports. I guess what I'm getting at - like in Hollywood and in movies, is it...

COOGLER: Oh, I'm saying...

GREENE: ...Sad that I would be focusing on this and asking you like, wow...

COOGLER: I mean, it was a...

GREENE: ...You're pulling off something important by having a blockbuster with a...

COOGLER: Yeah. But I mean, there was a time in sports when professional teams would say, man, we won't make any money if we put a black person out there, you know. And you had - it took that one to happen. And then they looked around - it was like - wait. We're making more money. You know what I mean (laughter)? We've got to do this more. Oh, yeah, people will cheer for a person that doesn't look like them. I mean, I know I watched superhero movies and did it all the time.

GREENE: But is Hollywood that far behind, like, sports?

COOGLER: Maybe. I mean, in terms of who gets to go out on the field and play, I think sports is probably ahead of Hollywood. In terms of who's in the owners' rooms and who's in - like, running the studios, Hollywood is maybe a little farther ahead than sports.

GREENE: There was an experience I had in the movie. Like, there have been complaints in some past movies about black characters who feel like they're cliche, like they're one-dimensional. And what's really interesting to me is in this film, if any of the characters were that, it was the two white guys...

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: ...Which was an interesting statement to me. And was that was something deliberate?

COOGLER: No, no. I didn't think that those characters were one-dimensional at all. I really liked those characters...

(CROSSTALK)

GREENE: No - and I did, too. I wasn't saying that.

COOGLER: Yeah.

GREENE: But it was like - it was interesting that the experience was an...

COOGLER: It's that the...

GREENE: ...Entirely black cast that felt natural. And it felt...

COOGLER: Yeah, the film wasn't from their point of view, you know...

GREENE: Yeah.

COOGLER: ...Is what it might have felt like...

GREENE: Yeah.

COOGLER: ...That the film wasn't from their lens. You know, like...

GREENE: And how important was that to you to...

COOGLER: Oh, extremely important. I think perspective is everything, man. Like, perspective and, like, proximity to whose story you're watching is one of the gifts that cinema has, man. It's like - for me, I never left the country until I made a film that got into a festival that was outside of the country. But how I used to travel was through watching movies. And I liked the movies that put me, like, right on the ground. You know, I like "City Of God." You know, I like "Un Prophete." These films, they put you, like, right in the zone. You're experiencing it with the people who it's about.

GREENE: Once you do this, make a Marvel blockbuster, do you feel like you can ever go back and make a film like "Fruitvale Station" and do something that's intimate or indie style, I mean, a smaller film.

COOGLER: Well, yeah. I mean, I think intimacy can be achieved in a film of any budget. Like, I feel, personally, like I have some of my most intimate scenes that I've ever made in this movie. I just want to make films that resonate with me, that are interesting to me, that deal with themes that I'm passionate about. Like, this movie took me to the continent of Africa, man, which is somewhere I wanted to go since my mom and dad sat me down and told me I was black. You know what I mean? So - I mean, I hope to make movies that will challenge me as an artist and as a person, you know. That's really what I hope to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENDRICK LAMAR AND SZA SONG, "ALL THE STARS")

GREENE: Good luck with the movie.

COOGLER: Oh, thank you.

GREENE: Thanks for talking to us.

COOGLER: Thanks so much.

GREENE: Real nice meeting you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENDRICK LAMAR AND SZA SONG, "ALL THE STARS")

GREENE: Ryan Coogler - he's director of "Black Panther." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.